A Bell for Adano still rings true for occupying armies

Bell tower of monastery at La Verna, Italy

When the American army kicks the fascists and their German allies out of Italy, Major Joppolo is assigned to restore order in Adano. He is supposed to see that there is food, water, sanitation and an appreciation for freedom and democracy.

He also has to keep his own troops in line.

The locals say the most important thing Joppolo can do is to replace the 700-year-old bell the fascists melted down to make gun barrels.

Joppolo vows to find Adano another bell.

He is beginning to get the town running again when General Marvin’s jeep is blocked by a mule cart as he passes through Adano.

The General orders the mule shot and all carts prohibited in Adano. Without the carts, Adano has no way to get water.

Joppolo countermands the General’s order.

John Hersey tells his tale with humor and gentle irony. The outcome of the story is predictable. The characters are predictable, too, by virtue of being very ordinary sorts of people.

We need men like Joppolo in our occupying armies, Hersey says, “to guarantee the behavior of men under pressure.”

Abu Grabe and Haditha testify that we still need to be reminded of that.

A Bell for Adano
By John Hersey
Alfred A. Knopf, 1944
269 pages
1944 bestseller #9
My Grade: B

Photo credit:  The old monastery uploaded by Mattox

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dragon Seed Eyes Killing in a Good Cause

Rice paddies and mountains near Yangshuo in Southern China

In Dragon Seed, Pearl S. Buck returns to her beloved China to explore an important question: does killing change people into killers?

Ling Tan is an illiterate farmer. He and his wife Lao San have three married children and a younger son and daughter.

When the Japanese invade China, Ling Tan and the other farmers hope that by being civil to the conquerors, they can lead fairly normal lives.

They are merely fooling themselves.

The invaders rape and pillage, then set up local puppet governments to systematically bleed the country.

Ling Tan and his family organizes a local resistance. But Ling Tan worries about whether the killing at which he and his family become adept will not fundamentally change them, dehumanize them. Secret radio broadcasts from the Allies give them courage to wait for the light for the invaders to be repelled.

With its secret rooms, guerrilla raids, and the constant threat of exposure hanging over the characters’ heads, Dragon Seed will attract more readers today than Buck’s better known novel The Good Earth.  Dragon Seed covers less time and has more action, much of it horrifying, though tastefully presented. It also has a vivid characterizations and a wealth of telling detail.

Above all it has that nagging question every thoughtful person must consider in an era of conflict: does killing change people into killers?

Dragon Seed
Pearl S. Buck
John Day, 1942
378 pages
1942 Bestseller #3
My Grade: A-

Photo credit: “Chinese Landscape” showing rice paddies and mountains near the town of Yangshuo in Southern China. Uploaded by bewinca http://www.sxc.hu/photo/905398

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Moon Is Down Celebrates Freedom

Tuscany village

John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, a tale about life in an occupied country, is as timely today as it was when in 1942.

An invading army captures a European town in a matter of minutes, meeting minimal resistance, thanks to meticulous planning and help from a respected local businessman.

The youthful soldiers think that because the invasion was so easy, the occupation will be easy too. General Lanser knows better.  He knows the locals will rebel against the army of occupation.  He knows, too, that the way the military deals with rebels creates even greater resistance.  He would prefer to control the town by manipulating the mayor.

The mayor, however, sees himself as an instrument of the people, not their ruler.  After the army executes a miner for refusing to dig coal, the mayor quietly helps his people organize a resistance movement. “Free men…can fight on in defeat,” he says.

As Lanser feared, the army orders him to execute hostages to punish resistance.  He starts with the mayor.

Steinbeck draws his characters with swift, sure strokes, telling just enough, letting the cast reveal the rest of what readers must know.  The plot is carefully constructed; the action moves swiftly, inevitably to the climax.

The Moon is Down
John Steinbeck
Viking, 1942
188 pages
1942 Bestseller #2
My Grade: A

Photo credit: “Tuscany” uploaded by Prootman http://www.sxc.hu/photo/866487

© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni